Friday, December 23, 2022

MINING THE ASTEROIDS #2: Can An Asteroid Be OWNED??? By Whom? How?

Using the Programme Guide of the 2021 World Science Fiction Convention, DisCON which I WOULD have been attending in person if I felt safe enough to do so in person AND it hadn’t been changed to the week before the Christmas Holidays…HOWEVER, as the program firms up, I will jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Program Guide. I will be using the events to drive me to distraction or revelation – as the case may be. The link is provided below where this appeared...sometime soon! But I’ll have to stick with the Program Guide for the 2020 FIRST Virtual WSF Convention for inspiration…

Catalyzing Space Entrepreneurial Ecosystems
2 Hour workshop on catalyzing a space ecosystem/industry in your city, region or country.
Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom, SpaceBase

Of course, I wasn’t able to be there, but the blurb started me thinking…

I was crushed a few weeks ago to discover that Planetary Resources, “Following financial troubles caused by ‘delayed investment’…on 31 October 2018…the company's human assets were purchased by the blockchain software technology company ConsenSys, Inc. In May 2020, ConsenSys made all Planetary Resources intellectual property available to the public domain, and in June 2020, all the remaining hardware assets were auctioned off,” which I had wanted to invest in, was no longer a company. That led to a bunch of reading, and eventually to this mind-discussion – as well as the question poised above.

So…what the heck is an “entrepreneurial ecosystem”? Sounds like a greenhouse for business people…Apparently, the term itself comes from biology, but it’s been applied to business now. “In biology, an interspecific competition, in ecology, is a form of competition in which individuals of different species compete for the same resources in an ecosystem…”

It's “sort of right”, then. That being a wild guess, according to a 2014 article in the Harvard Business Review, “…no one owns or represents an entrepreneurship ecosystem, there can be no one objective that motivates all of the actors.”

So, here’s my speculation and musings…Because no one can own an asteroid (yet), Planetary Resources couldn’t really PROVE that they were a business. While they successfully orbited at least two satellites – the little teeny ones – they had several setbacks and a major investor (reading between the lines), withdrew their support.

But the main problem remained: Could Planetary Resources REALLY put a stake down on any asteroid that came by? Would they be allowed to keep it, and even more importantly, would they be allowed to MINE it?

It’s possible the answer to the question lies in a couple directions. First off, the Great Migration, in which Europeans/Americans “staked claims” on land that was either used by various Indigenous tribes or claimed by them, and subsequently ignored, parceled off, and that-was-that…the government created laws (for a brief reading, try this: that essentially declared the lands “empty” and so put them up for EuroAmerican grabs.

Simple mining and homestead laws were pretty simple initially: “The 1862 Homestead Act allowed for settlers to lay claim to 160 acre lots of public land which had been surveyed by the Federal government.”, the Mining Act of 1872 stated, “The Mining Act allowed prospectors to survey and claim public lands in the western states. The stated purpose of this law was to open the mineral claims in the public lands of the United States to exploration and purchase…this law recognized that several people might band together and become co-owners of a mining claim. Should one of the co-owners fail to contribute to annual improvements of the claim upon notice, his stake would revert to the other co-owners.”

21st Century mining claims are covered now by law from this document called, “TITLE 30: Mineral Lands and Mining”. In particular, “CHAPTER 2—MINERAL LANDS AND REGULATIONS IN GENERAL”. This document does NOT include asteroids, not specifically at any rate.

So, even if we could get Humans out to an asteroid, assuming it has been assayed to contain mineable ore, Title 30 doesn’t seem to cover it explicitly, though this seems like it would be stretchable: “The locators of all mining locations made on any mineral vein, lode, or ledge, situated on the public domain…shall have the exclusive right of possession and enjoyment of all the surface included within the lines of their locations, and of all veins, lodes, and ledges throughout their entire depth, the top or apex of which lies inside of such surface lines extended downward vertically, although such veins, lodes, or ledges may so far depart from a perpendicular in their course downward as to extend outside the vertical side lines of such surface locations.”

That seems clear, though whoever wrote it wasn’t thinking about asteroids!

Right now, it doesn’t seem that any company is seriously pursuing asteroid mining, though one might be, The Asteroid Mining Company in the UK. “Asteroid Mining Corporation Ltd. was founded in March 2016 by Mitch Hunter-Scullion because…asteroids are staggeringly valuable resources…asteroid mining is vital…the ultimate goal of AMC: to advance the march of human progress by moving as many polluting industries into space and out of Earth's fragile biosphere as possible so that the Earth can become the garden of the Solar System.”

Hmmm…seems a bit hyperbolic, but, OK. Let’s go with it.

Where does SpaceBase come in? The New Zealand-based company is multi-purposed. Their vision: “We see a world in which all people have opportunity to participate in the space industry on an equal footing, in accordance with their aptitude and ambitions. We plan to contribute to this vision by making education and entrepreneurial support available to those who need it most. In short, we want to democratize space for everyone. We believe that outcome is best achieved when as many people as possible have the education and support required to participate in that effort.”

They’ve done this by forming a space entrepreneurial ecosystem. I’m interested, but not excited yet. They don’t seem to be ones who intend on going into space to drill asteroids. What does “making education and entrepreneurial support available to those who need it most” really mean?

“Entrepreneurial support” doesn’t sound like “we’ll give you the cash you need”….sounds like…“we’ll help you look for the cash you need from someone else”. That’s fine, I imagine. But, if I have a plan to fly to an asteroid, do a survey – most likely take some cores, or blast a bit free and collect the debris – and come back to Earth, they’re not the ones I’d go to.

Maybe they have connections? What about “making education support available”? Not quite sure. I need to find out stuff about sending spaceships up, but does their “education support” provide me contacts with people who can build the necessary rockets? How do I raise the capital when ONE person going into space (for like 5 minutes and not even REALLY in space, at least not in any useful way!) would set me back $250,000?

Harvard Business Review points out another problem here: “There is no one driver of an entrepreneurship ecosystem because by definition an ecosystem is a dynamic, self-regulating network of many different types of actors.…raising capital, finding talent, and overcoming bureaucracy are three of the top challenges entrepreneurs ascribe to their environments. As I have argued, this is such a ubiquitous phenomenon that it probably reflects something fundamental about the generic process of entrepreneurship, rather than a deficiency of the ecosystem.”

OK – this whole thing got me thinking. I’m going to have to several other parts to this as I muddle around the idea of REALLY mining asteroids, I can ponder what it would take, and how I can make a story of my research and thoughts. Maybe “Asteroid Veterinarian”?

(ADDENDUM: OK, this is the most recent article I can find addressing the issue of asteroid ownership: